Backdrafts to Backboards: Bridging the Gap with Your Diverse Community

By Allen Pekarek

Years ago, while serving in the United States Army, I was fortunate enough to be sent to the Defense Language Institute in California. This facility hosts language training for most branches of the Department of Defense. I was assigned to the Spanish Program. As a green, 18-year-old kid from Minnesota, I thought, “What in the world am I going to do with Spanish?” I had no idea then just how important being able to communicate in Spanish would become.

Fast forward a decade and a half. I am a firefighter/paramedic with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department. Like most other cities in America, Indianapolis is home to a variety of people with diverse ethnic, language, and cultural backgrounds. Recently, we have experienced a marked increase in our Latino population. As such, we have had more requests for service, both emergent and nonemergent, from this group. Whether dealing with a Spanish speaking family outside their burning home, a Latino construction worker entrapped up to his waist in earth, or someone inquiring about how to use a smoke detector, we realize being able to communicate effectively is crucial. Our department is experiencing firsthand the challenges and rewards associated with serving this growing segment of the community.

How often have you heard someone say, “Why should we have to learn Spanish? They are in our county now and should learn English.” In my experience, the majority of Latinos in our community are making an effort to learn English. Most, not unlike my ancestors, came to the United States in search of a better life and understand that this necessitates their learning English, learning our laws and regulations, and assimilating into the fabric of our towns and cities. That being said, as public safety professionals, we have taken a sworn oath to protect the lives and property of those who request or need our services, and these responsibilities know no linguistic or cultural boundaries. We do not have the luxury of being able to pick and choose the incidents to which we respond or the circumstances of those requiring our assistance.

The fire service is a unique and dynamic organization. We enjoy many rich traditions, yet we must also be ever adapting to face the new challenges with which we are presented. As new medical technologies have developed, new firefighting methods emerged; we have educated ourselves and incorporated these techniques into our way of doing business. The fire service must take this same approach to meet the needs of the Spanish speaking community. We must work together to understand each other’s cultures, problems, needs, and goals.

The city of Indianapolis and its fire and police departments recognized years ago the importance of being able to communicate in Spanish. The past several years our departments have held joint language training classes. The classes are informal, yet effective and have primarily been taught by Spanish speaking members of each department. Classes are made up of a variety of on- and off-duty police officers and firefighter/EMTs. Topics covered include basic vocabulary, sentence structure, pronunciation, as well as material and language specific to public safety. Students frequently role-play and may act as a patient, a victim of a crime, or a driver in a traffic stop. These scenarios give our personnel the chance to practice job-specific Spanish and gain confidence using their language skills in real-world circumstances.

The capstone of the Spanish classes is an immersion trip to Latin America. Honduras and Mexico have each been destinations for our groups. These trips are structured as medical missions to provide basic care to underserved populations. In addition to providing medical care, the trips give public safety officers the opportunity to take their Spanish abilities to levels they never thought possible. The competencies they acquired in class are maximized and countless new material is gained. Perhaps even more important than the language skills is the exposure to the culture. Personally experiencing some of the best and worst these countries have to offer cannot help but give one a more compassionate and understanding view of the Latinos in our community.

These trips also give firefighters and police officers the chance to work together and gain better insight into each other’s professions. The relationships developed on these trips enhance our ability to work together and serve the citizens of Indianapolis. The language immersion trips are privately financed through a variety of donations and fundraisers.

While these classes and trips have been very successful, they take considerable time and work to develop. Fire department administrators must understand the importance of bridging the gap with the Latino community and be willing to commit the appropriate resources to make it happen. Meanwhile, you and your department can take some smaller steps toward this goal:

  • Contact your local high school Spanish class and ask to participate. Developing and practicing fire/EMS scenarios could be a class project from which everyone could benefit.
  • Does your community have a Latino/Hispanic Center or church? Schedule a meeting, discuss their needs, and start a dialogue.
  • Host a safety fair with an emphasis on your Latino community. Most departments in the United States offer much broader services than those in Latin America. Let people know what you do.

The fire service has a long-standing reputation of meeting challenges head on. Let us do the same with the language and cultural gaps that exist with the diverse communities we serve. Encourage labor and management to review these issues together and jointly formulate realistic solutions.

Allen Pekarek is a lieutenant and a firefighter/paramedic with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department. He currently serves in the Operations Division as an EMS duty officer, overseeing medical activities, victims assistance needs, and special events/mass gatherings. He is also the hazardous materials plan manager for Wishard Health Services, a not-for-profit Level One trauma center in Indianapolis.

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